Why I wish Richard Rohr would finish his book

Massimo Faggioli, a leading scholar of the Second Vatican Council and my colleague here at the University of St. Thomas, has remarked that in the celebratory wake of the council, reformers made a strategic blunder. By disposition, they found ideas and theology more exciting than institutions and structure. Having achieved far more than they had dared to imagine at the council, they then went home — not only literally but figuratively. Literally, of course, few had the power to appoint functionaries in the Vatican bureaucracy or Curia. But theologically as well they left the proper role and legitimacy of institutions largely to conservatives. Traditionalists could then hunker down, bide their time, and look for ways to roll back Vatican II. It was not just that they were wily — Faggioli suggests — but that reformers had abandoned the field.

Which is why I wish that the influential spiritFallingUpwardual writer Fr. Richard Rohr OFM would finish his book, Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Well placed to remind reformers of all types that the work of building strong and humane institutions is a necessary and noble calling, Rohr all but abandons it in the end.

The unfinished character of Rohr’s book is, alas, all too telling. To be sure,  no one can expect Rohr belatedly to alter a half century of struggle over the reception of the council. And he does recognize that structure, institutions, rules, doctrine, and creeds have a role to play in creating the conditions for a maturing life of faith. Disappointingly, though, in the end Rohr seems to expect true and maturing elders to leave such matters behind for the less mature, the rigid, and the legalistic to manage.

As I near the end of my sixth decade and read Falling Upward, so much that Rohr has written certainly  seems wise and resonant. Drawing on decades of work as a spiritual director and prison chaplain, as well as wide reading of others in the field of moral development, Rohr gently invites readers into the adventure of growing up and growing into mystery. As the title hints, it is an adventure that must face rather than avoid the pain of failure and disappointment. Yet such an adventure and such a life yields a rich and satisfying array of paradoxes: To nurture a “tragic sense of life” is to welcome a gracious compassion. To journey into the world’s complexity is the way to return home like Odysseus to a “second simplicity.” To settle into the “bright sadness” that comes from opening oneself to the depth of human experience is to taste a joy that is deep and authentic.

Rohr’s basic schema is this: “The first task [of human life] is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold” (xiii).  Roughly speaking, at least for people who develop in healthy ways, those two tasks correspond to the first and second halves of life. Adolescents and young adults may appropriate the identities and structures that their families, churches, or communities offer them — or they may chafe, rebel, and “leave home” in search of another identity. But one way or another their developmental task for years if not decades is to recognize and forge the structures they need to survive and hopefully thrive in the world.

Then, as that container forms and solidifies, the second half of life affords maturing adults the opportunity — indeed God and the universe invite them — to explore the very purpose and meaning of life that the container is meant to hold.  Like Odysseus, if they have not already left home, now they must. Ultimately their inchoate goal will be to return home to what Paul Ricouer famously called a “second naivete” and what Rohr calls a “second simplicity.” On the way, however, they will need to name rather than stifle their doubts, embrace rather than tidy up mystery, and transcend rather than harden the very us-them boundaries and rigid rules that they needed for healthy development in the first half of life. Otherwise — and here is the danger from which Rohr clearly wants to warn us — we get stuck in a rigidity, legalism, or outright fundamentalism. Structure, rules, and boundaries had a role to play in the first half of life but to obsess over them at the expense of mystery stymies growth in the second.

The groundbreaking developmental psychologist Jean Piaget once noted that any theory of human development hangs from its vertex — from the vision of maturity that the theory assumes and projects. Rohr starts to sketch out his vision of spiritual and moral maturity early in his book. “Mature societies were meant to be led by elders, seniors, saints, and ‘the initiated.’ They alone are in a position to be true leaders in a society, or certainly in any spiritual organization.” (9) What qualifies them for wise and humane leadership is that they have developed a wide-angle perspective that allows them to appreciate the struggles and to incorporate the strengths of people in all stages of development. Somehow, through the hard-won lessons of having fallen upward themselves, they do not so much reject first-half-of-life concerns as transcend them through a wider generosity, thus integrating first- and second-half-of-life agenda and insights into a larger wisdom.

Or maybe not. The longer Rohr continues, the less he actually attends to any clear vision of mature elders who have integrated first-half and second-half life lessons with an expectation that they will then return home as those best fit to take responsibility for the institutions and structures of their communities, churches, or societies. To be sure, that vision does not recede entirely. The word “elder” continues to appear intermittently throughout the book. So too does recognition that structure, institutions, rules, doctrine and the like play necessary roles in both personal and collective life.

Yet the communal responsibility of elders never receives the elaboration one would expect to see at the pinnacle of mature human life. More telling still, Rohr’s recognition of the proper place of structure actually seems more and more grudging the farther into the book one gets. Yes, of course it’s important, he seems to say, but for second-half-of-life people, it becomes more and more of a problem. You’ll need to tolerate people and institutions who are preoccupied with first-half-of-life tasks, he exhorts those who are completing their second-half-of-life tasks.  “Don’t hate them for it” (137).

Don’t hate them for it? Really? To seriously struggle against such a temptation does not suggest life integration or maturity but still-unresolved adolescence.

This is what I find so subtly disappointing about Rohr’s book. Consistently and eloquently he offers real wisdom about what it means to move into a second naivete or second simplicity in faith and spirituality. This is the ability to move through questions, doubt, and critique of one’s inherited faith tradition and then beyond —  into a post-critical reappropriation of the wisdom and truth at the core of faith. Yet when it comes to some kind of second embrace of the role of structures and institutions in making human community and spirited church life possible, the vision Rohr projects is wispy at best and counterproductive at worst.

Think about it: I doubt that either Rohr or we his second-half-of-life readers really want to leave all of the tasks that he associates with the first half of life to those necessarily more rigid and legalistic first-halfers.  In the best of all possible worlds or communities or institutions or churches — yes, possible ones not unattainably ideal ones — wouldn’t we want consummate second-half-of-life elders to be our leaders?  Wouldn’t we want them to be the ones forming and reforming structures, managing institutions, making rules that are humane, anticipating legitimate exceptions, revisiting our creeds with a sense of mystery, articulating the wisdom of our doctrines and scriptures with generosity toward the questions of unbelievers and the insights of other faiths, and above all sensing responsibility not resentment toward the tasks of passing on a living tradition?

Perhaps Fr. Rohr will yet “finish” Falling Upward by doing a revised edition. For although I can only speculate, I can’t help but wonder whether he himself is still completing his own second-half-of-life integration. As a younger man, in his 1990 book Discovering the Enneagram, Rohr apparently agreed when “one spiritual director told me that I probably became a priest to change and challenge the Sixes,” for he admitted that type Sixes on the Enneagram were the hardest for him to understand and or tolerate (125). That itself would be understandable if, as he characterized them in 1990, their “need for security/certainty” prompts Enneagram Six types to develop an “authoritarian” personality structure. Such people would then be the ones most likely to get stuck in what Rohr now calls first-half-of-life tasks, bent on controlling rather than filling their containers.

A more nuanced characterization of Sixes, however, might portray them as early adopters of the very integrative task that all personality types will need to take up if they are to mature into communal elders. A later book on the Enneagram by Daniels and Price (The Essential Enneagram, HarperOne, 2000) offers just that nuance, characterizing Sixes instead as “Loyal Skeptics.” As Daniels and Price present the nine Enneagram types, Sixes are in fact the only ones who are so deeply paradoxical that they require a two-word label to capture their creative tension. Yes they can be exceptionally loyal to reliable authorities and traditions. But they also may be quickest to resist unreliable authorities that betray their communal purpose. The burden and the gift of Sixes is to hold both impulses in tension. In other words, mature and “redeemed” Sixes may have to be the first to do the work that all personality types must do in order to integrate first- and second-half-of-life concerns as wise and responsible elders who savor mystery and are comfortable with paradox.

Healthy personal and spiritual development is at stake here, but far more than that. We live in cynical age, with many traditional institutions in disarray, many corporate institutions seeming hegemonic, and all in disrepute. The impulse of reformers from left and right is often to discredit, deconstruct, or dream of tearing down. The impulse of young people watching from the sidelines is often to stay there rather than commit to participate in institutional life at all except as consumers. And meanwhile, a prominent spiritual director like Fr. Rohr — through his books and talks — pastors a generation of Vatican II Catholics and others who either have come to feel too disempowered to imagine themselves playing the role of communal elders in clericalist churches, or are simply tired out and wishing to retire. But it is still a shame and a disappointment.

True elders can never really retire from communities and churches that value their gifts, after all. Indeed, mature and responsible leaders model courage even when their contributions are undervalued or suppressed. So I hope that Rohr’s neglect of their calling does not dis-courage too many.  Or better yet, that he might yet finish his book.

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3 Responses to Why I wish Richard Rohr would finish his book

  1. Brian Volck says:

    Gerald: Richard once told me that his characterization of sixes in his Enneagram book was something he’d like to correct, so you and he may have an interesting conversation awaiting.

  2. James Postlethwaite says:

    Gerald, that’s an articulate and perceptive analysis of Falling Upwards, including some of its limitations. The truth comes more easily out of open, collective and collaborative questioning. I don’t see you here as criticizing Richard but as adding a useful perspective. Perhaps we should do some of the leg-work in offering ideas for how elders can actively take up a variety of appropriate responsibilities within or in relation to institutions? I’m a very junior ‘elder’ but I’d be happy to contribute.

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